South Korean telecom giant SK Telecom is basing its entire Internet of Things (IoT) strategy for low-power, wide-area (LPWA) communications on the "two main pillars" of LoRa and LTE-M, the company has revealed.
LoRa is one of several LPWA network technologies that use unlicensed spectrum and have emerged from outside the cellular communications industry, while LTE-M is among a handful of IoT standards being developed by the 3GPP.
While operators including AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) seem to be committing themselves solely to cellular, the details of SK Telecom (Nasdaq: SKM)'s plans show how 3GPP standards could co-exist with and complement other LPWA technologies. (See Vodafone Ups IoT Stakes With 2017 Plan for NB-IoT and AT&T Settles on LTE for Cellular IoT.)
That will deliver a further boost to LoRa, which is now being deployed by some of the world's leading cellular operators, including Orange (NYSE: FTE) in France and KPN Telecom NV (NYSE: KPN) in the Netherlands. (See IoT Startup Actility to Add 3GPP Support in 2016 and Orange Hails LoRa Breakthrough as Bouygues Ups IoT Game.)
SK Telecom's fresh statements about LTE-M and LoRa raise questions about the operator's commitment to Sigfox , another unlicensed-spectrum LPWA technology developed by the French company of the same name.
Along with Spain's Telefónica , SK Telecom participated in a $115 million funding round for Sigfox in early 2015, yet the operator makes no mention of Sigfox when describing its IoT plans.
Light Reading has pressed SK Telecom on whether it intends to use Sigfox in any way, but has yet to receive an answer.
Nevertheless, in comments emailed to Light Reading, a spokesperson for SK Telecom described LTE-M and LoRa as the "two main pillars of the IoT network."
It appears that LoRa will be reserved largely for "low mobility" services, while LTE-M addresses demand for connected-car and other "high mobility" applications.
SK Telecom also indicated that LTE-M would cater to higher-bandwidth requirements, with LoRa used in devices and objects transmitting small amounts of bandwidth over longer distances.
The operator claimed to have finished building a nationwide LTE-M network in March -- a process that is likely to have involved making software upgrades to LTE basestations rather than any hardware installations.
It finished deploying a nationwide LoRa network last month. (See SK Telecom Completes Nationwide LoRa Network Rollout for IoT.)
Like Orange, SK Telecom appears to have been drawn to the technology in the absence of a viable cellular alternative. "Early commercialization is possible as LoRa has a relatively faster pace in technological development in comparison to LTE-based technology," said the spokesperson.
While LTE-M is better than LoRa at supporting more bandwidth-hungry services, NB-IoT -- another 3GPP standard -- is expected to resemble LoRa more closely in terms of power consumption and range capabilities.
NB-IoT specifications, however, were finalized as part of the 3GPP's Release 13 as recently as last month, and commercial services are not expected to appear until next year at the very earliest.
Orange has hinted it may eventually abandon LoRa for a 3GPP standard such as NB-IoT, largely to avoid congestion and interference on unlicensed spectrum. It is unclear how NB-IoT would affect SK Telecom's IoT strategy, with the operator yet to announce any firm plans for the emerging standard. (See LoRa May Not Be for Long Haul at Orange.)
"SK Telecom will continue its R&D regarding NB-IoT," said the operator's spokesperson. "It will make a decision on NB-IoT commercialization based on business needs in the future."
Pointing out LoRa's other attractions, the spokesperson said the technology has been able to establish an "open alliance" involving a number of different companies.
The LoRa Alliance , the association that promotes LoRa, is keen to present the technology as one that is not proprietary, but critics say the intellectual property behind LoRa is controlled by Californian chipmaker Semtech Corp. (Nasdaq: SMTC).
Sigfox has also insisted on its "openness," saying its technology is made freely available to chipmakers. Yet service providers that want to use the technology are required to share their revenues with Sigfox.
According to SK Telecom, LoRa networks are now being deployed in 16 countries -- including France, the Netherlands and the US -- while proofs of concept for LoRa are underway in 56 countries.
Last month, Sigfox told Light Reading its technology was being used in a total of 20 countries. (See Sigfox Said to Face Customer Backlash.)
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading